Mosul: Oppression from all sides
Firstly, a few words about the recent history of Mosul, so we can understand the context of what is happening today. I will deal with the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, leading to the declaration of an Islamic caliphate in Mosul and then the victory claimed by the Iraqi government. That will pose questions about the future of Iraq in general and of Islamic State in particular.
Personally I lived in Mosul in the 1970s, when I was a medical student at the university – then one of the best in Iraq, but now largely destroyed. Some of my family are still in the city and I am in continuous contact with them, so I am able to get a reasonable picture of what is going on there.
Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq and it is renowned for its ethnically and religiously diverse community. Whatever Middle East religious or ethnic group you can think of is likely to be represented there. The majority is Arab and Muslim, but there are Christians, Yazidis, Armenians and many other different ethnic and religious backgrounds – they have been in Mosul, which was part of the Ottoman empire, and in the surrounding area since ancient times.
Its population is around two million, many of them well educated – in fact Iraq as a whole is famous for its yearning for education. For many of us in the 70s and 80s having a degree was not enough – we wanted to go on to post-graduate studies. In many ways this was similar to the attitude you might expect in many parts of Europe, and in terms of education Mosul was the best after Baghdad.
Mosul has also been a centre of officer training since the establishment of the Iraqi army at the end of the 1920s. Officers from Mosul became prominent in the army during the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88. However, in 2003 they surrendered to US invasion forces a few days after the fall of Baghdad. So there was no real resistance from Mosul. The US established one of its largest military bases in Mosul under the command of general David Petraeus (later to become US commander in the Middle East and eventually CIA director).
His policy was to ‘buy’ the people, especially women, and this was practised first of all in Mosul before being applied to the whole country. Part of Petraeus’s policy was based on coopting local women into the US military’s counterinsurgency efforts. His reasoning was that if women could be controlled then so could their families and their men.
While oil money was providing Iraq the highest proportion of its budget in modern history, little was spent on improving people’s basic needs. Vast sums were swallowed up by corrupt practices, while almost a third of the population were struggling below the poverty line.
In mid-2003, the resistance began in earnest against the American and British occupation, including in Mosul. But, whenever there was an attack on US troops, the response was one of collective punishment, leading to a huge increase in the anger and despair of the people, who were trying to rebuild their city.
Many of Mosul’s men were being arrested and the numbers seemed to go on increasing. I was involved with some of the human rights organisations in Mosul and Baghdad. We used to receive pile after pile of documents and photographs of tortured people. Many were arrested solely on the word of a secret informer, or accused of being a terrorist just because their name was similar to that of a resistance fighter.
The government was in denial, refusing to look into what was happening to the ordinary people in Mosul, where the treatment seemed to be particularly brutal. But in 2009 the scandal came out into the open. Detainees were being subjected to the same sort of treatment seen in Abu Ghraib – only it was being practised by Iraqi security forces, not the US.
Details came out concerning Iraqi’s secret prisons – in fact they were so secret that just about everyone knew about them! They had been under Iraqi control since Abu Ghraib. The Americans were no longer directly involved in the torture – they had been keeping their hands clean and were now claiming to be very concerned about ‘human rights violations’. So those due to be ‘interrogated’ were handed over to the Iraqis to deal with.
A horrifying report by Human Rights Watch titled ‘Iraq: detainees describe the treatment:
interrogators and security officials sodomised some detainees with broomsticks and pistol barrels and, the detainees said, raped younger detainees, who were then sent to a different detention site. Some young men said they had been forced to perform oral sex on interrogators and guards. Interrogators also forced some detainees to molest one another.1
One of the victims of torture was Ramzi Shihab Ahmed, a former general in the Iraqi army and a British citizen who lives in London. I knew him and his wife, Ramzi. He was arrested after he returned to Mosul from London to find his son, who had been detained. His jailers refused him medicine for his diabetes and high blood pressure. “I was beaten up severely, especially on my head,” he told Human Rights Watch. “They broke one of my teeth during the beatings … Ten people tortured me – four from the investigation commission and six soldiers …. They applied electricity to my penis and sodomised me with a stick. I was forced to sign a confession that they wouldn’t let me read.2 After a 10-minute ‘trial’ without legal representation he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
During interrogation security officials mocked the detainees and called them trash. Under torture many offered false confessions – it was very similar to what happened in Abu Ghraib. Religious figures too were the victims and there were stories of children being raped in front of their parents to make them ‘confess’.
It was this situation that provided IS with the fertile ground it needed. People were desperate.
Was there peaceful resistance? Yes, There were vigils and demonstrations, but Iraqi forces from outside the city erected checkpoints, at which people had to face humiliation every day. The anger was building up, until finally in August 2014 a group called Daesh, which no-one was really familiar with, entered Mosul. There were only 300 of them, but suddenly the Iraqi army in their thousands discarded their uniforms and ran away, leaving the city to IS, which they took over within two days.
How did the people react? Some were happy: surely things under IS could not be any worse than what they had had to endure for so many years? They did not know much about IS, but they thought that at least it would be able to provide some assistance. In fact in the first couple of months it looked as though Daesh might be able to institute some changes. For example, there were no more checkpoints and people were able to move about more freely. But there seemed to be a change in policy and gradually IS became more and more oppressive, imposing their own religious prejudices and making more and more arrests. In such a diverse city people were shocked. IS demanded that everyone either convert to Islam, pay a fee or risk being killed. Soon the mass killing and destruction started, forcing many people to flee.
The response of the Iraqi and Kurdish regional governments was to join a US-led coalition, which began a programme of continuous air strikes. They were supposedly ‘smart’ strikes, but the number of casualties increased day by day. In fact the destruction, fear and death caused and the resulting danger was a bigger factor for some than the presence of IS – civilian victims of the ‘war on terror’ began to exceed the victims of the ‘terror’ itself.
During the battle to ‘liberate’ Mosul, one million civilians were displaced, and 90% of the west side of the city – where the hospitals, university, libraries, power and water supplies and so on were located – was reduced to rubble. Bridges and roads were destroyed, meaning that it was impossible to transport supplies. The foreign minister of the Kurdish regional government has estimated that 40,000 people were killed in nine months – a figure which Baghdad claims is an exaggeration. Nor does the government want to mention the number of young people, including volunteers, who died. Responding to the call by government-backed clerics they were often sent to the front to fight IS without adequate training.
In addition to the destruction of the infrastructure and the number of deaths and displaced people caused by Mosul’s ‘liberation’, the problem for the authorities is how to deal with people suspected of being surrogates or members of IS, not to mention the families of killed IS fighters. It is clear that when suspected IS members are arrested, they are immediately tortured and killed – hundreds of pictures and videos bear testimony to this on the internet; and many international organisations, including the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have provided verification.
After Mosul was retaken, an army general claimed that IS suspects would be treated as prisoners of war – but he soon feared for his own life. Forget it – suspects have to be ‘dealt with’ immediately and there are no prisoners of war. This horrendous situation is a mirror image of how Daesh treats people – hardly the way to rebuild Iraq. Nor will it eliminate IS or some other terrorist group in the future – it is a vicious circle with no end in sight.
The prime minister not only denies all claims of torture, but says that such stories are themselves ‘inciting violence’ and instigating killings. That was exactly the reaction of the Americans to claims of torture at Abu Ghraib. The failure to acknowledge these deaths even deprives Iraqis of knowing that their loved ones are dead. There is a common thread here – like the US before it the government is denying the existence of such atrocities.
Back in 2010, following the publication of the report of the torture of 430 prisoners in Muthana secret prison, arrest warrants were issued for around 100 officers and interrogators in the Iraqi army and police. But nothing happened and the report was forgotten. Torture happens with impunity.
So what is the situation now? Should we be celebrating the victory of Mosul’s ‘liberation’? Thousands of Iraqis from all sides have been killed, from young fighters duped by clerical leaders telling them to sacrifice themselves for the jihad, to civilians trying to survive.
Despite its defeat in Mosul, Islamic State is still occupying other towns, including Tal Afar, just to the west of Mosul, and Hawija, near Kirkuk. There is talk of moves against these remaining strongholds, but, especially in Tel Afar, the government is worried about Turkish interference, because Turkey has warned that it will not tolerate a change in the demographic balance.
The map of Iraq is indeed different, compared to 2003, as a result of the migration and displacement of thousands. People want to go back to their homes, including in Mosul, but they fear for their lives, while for others that is ruled out because of the destruction of every facility. Who will take responsibility for reconstruction? Iraq, as we know, is amongst the most corrupt countries in the world and this can only add to the sense of social fragmentation. Meanwhile, a range of other regional powers – from Turkey and Iran to Saudi Arabia – have their own particular interests, as well as the United States, of course.
All this makes for a very gloomy picture, but the Iraqi people are resilient and I am sure they will be able to surprise us. One thing is certain: salvation lies neither with IS nor the current Baghdad regime, nor the US or other outside powers.
Talk given in London on August 6, 2017.